America sends forth its privateers to pillage, bold corsairs stealing from you and I

Privateers are an inescapable part of war.  Sometimes legal, sometimes on the grey margins of international law, sometimes de facto outlaws — but they are always there in some fashion or other.  Boldly pillaging, making war a profitable sport.

To learn about America’s modern privateers we must turn away from the mainstream press, source of soothing platitudes, to Tom Engelhardt’s TomDispatch — a “must-read” for anyone interested in modern geopolitics.

The Afghan Scam“, Ann Jones, TomDispatch, 11 Janaury 2009 — “The Untold Story of Why the U.S. Is Bound to Fail in Afghanistan.”  

Tom’s introduction

With Afghanistan, it always seems to be more and worse. More American (and NATO) troops “surging” in, more Taliban control in the countryside, more insurgent attacks, more sophisticated roadside bombs, more deadly suicide bombings, more dead American and NATO troops, more problems with U.S. supply lines into Afghanistan, more civilian deaths from American and NATO military operations, more U.S. bases being built, more billions of U.S. dollars needed for military operations — Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently indicated that the build-up of U.S. forces alone in that country in the next fiscal year could cost an extra $5.5 billion — and, of course, yet more reports and studies indicating that everything yet tried to “stabilize” Afghanistan has gone desperately wrong.

And always these are followed by the insistence that more of the same militarily, a further build-up of coalition military forces, another five or 10 or 20 years of foreign “training” programs for Afghan forces still “not ready for the task” — no one asks how Taliban fighters, no less “Afghan,” prove so ready to fight without years of American training — is the only context for future success in “reconstructing” that country. Ann Jones, who was a humanitarian aid worker in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2006 and wrote a moving book about the experience, Kabul in Winter, suggests just why this essentially repetitive formula, which will now pass as part of the new thinking of the Obama era, is bound to lead to more of the same. She focuses on the “reconstruction” part of the formula and shows just why, all military matters aside, it’s such a hopeless shuck. Can this, nonetheless, be the path the U.S. will head down in the year to come? It seems so.



It’s hard to overstate the magnitude of the failure of American reconstruction in Afghanistan. While the U.S. has occupied the country — for seven years and counting — and efficiently set up a network of bases and prisons, it has yet to restore to Kabul, the capital, a mud brick city slightly more populous than Houston, a single one of the public services its citizens used to enjoy. When the Soviets occupied Afghanistan in the 1980s, they modernized the education system and built power plants, dams, factories, and apartment blocs, still the most coveted in the country. If, in the last seven years, George W. Bush did not get the lights back on in the capital, or the water flowing, or dispose of the sewage or trash, how can we assume Barack Obama will do any better with the corrupt system he’s about to inherit?

Between 2002 and 2008, the U.S. pledged $10.4 billion dollars in “development” (reconstruction) aid to Afghanistan, but actually delivered only $5 billion of that amount. Considering that the U.S. is spending $36 billion a year on the war in Afghanistan and about $8 billion a month on the war in Iraq, that $5 billion in development aid looks paltry indeed. But keep in mind that, in a country as poor as Afghanistan, a little well spent money can make a big difference.

The problem is not simply that the Bush administration skimped on aid, but that it handed it over to for-profit contractors. Privatization, as is now abundantly clear, enriches only the privateers and serves only their private interests.

The new plan for victory

Afghans protest that such a plan amounts to sponsoring civil war, which, if true, would mean that American involvement in Afghanistan might be coming full circle — civil war being the state in which the U.S. left Afghanistan at the end of our proxy war against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. American commanders, however, insist that they must use militias because Afghan Army and police forces are “simply not available.” Maj. Gen. Michael S. Tucker, deputy commander of American forces, told the New York Times, “We don’t have enough police, [and] we don’t have time to get the police ready.”

This, despite the State Department’s award to DynCorp last August of another $317.4 million contract “to continue training civilian police forces in Afghanistan,” a contract DynCorp CEO William Ballhaus greeted as “an opportunity to contribute to peace, stability and democracy in the world [and] support our government’s efforts to improve people’s lives.”

Money for nothing…

When the inspectors general of the Pentagon and State Department investigated the U.S. program to train the Afghan police in 2006, they found the number of men trained (about 30,000) to be less than half the number reported by the administration (70,000). The training had lasted eight weeks at most, with no in-the-field experience whatsoever. Only about half the equipment assigned to the police — including thousands of trucks — could be accounted for, and the men trained were then deemed “incapable of carrying out routine law enforcement work.”

The American privateer training the police — DynCorp — went on to win no-bid contracts to train police in Iraq with similar results. The total bill for American taxpayers from 2004 to 2006: $1.6 billion. It’s unclear whether that money came from the military or the development budget, but in either case it was wasted. The inspectors general reported that police incompetence contributed directly to increased opium production, the reinvigoration of the Taliban, and government corruption in general, thoroughly subverting much ballyhooed U.S. goals, both military and political.

Public money, vast private profits

… There are other peculiar features of American development aid. Nearly half of it (47%) goes to support “technical assistance.” Translated, that means overpaid American “experts,” often totally unqualified — somebody’s good old college buddies — are paid handsomely to advise the locals on matters ranging from office procedures to pesticide use, even when the Afghans neither request nor welcome such advice. By contrast, the universally admired aid programs of Sweden and Ireland allocate only 4% and 2% respectively to such technical assistance, and when asked, they send real experts. American technical advisors, like American privateers, are paid by checks — big ones — that pass directly from the federal treasury to private accounts in American banks, thus helping to insure that about 86 cents of every dollar designated for U.S. “foreign” aid anywhere in the world never leaves the U.S.A.

American aid that actually makes it abroad arrives with strings attached. At least 70% of it is “tied” to the purchase of American products. A food aid program, for example, might require Afghanistan to purchase American agricultural products in preference to their own, thus putting Afghan farmers out of business or driving even more of them into the poppy trade. (The percentage of aid from Sweden, Ireland, and the United Kingdom that is similarly tied: zero.)

… Often, in fact, only one of the preselected contractors puts in for the job and then — if you need a hint as to what’s really going on — just happens to award subcontracts to some of the others. It’s remarkable, too, how many former USAID officials have passed through the famed revolving door in Washington to become highly paid consultants to private contractors — and vice versa. By January 2006, the Bush administration had co-opted USAID altogether. The once independent aid agency launched by President Kennedy in 1961 became a subsidiary of the State Department and a partner of the Pentagon. …

The Afghan Scam

It’s not that American aid has done nothing. Check out the USAID website and you’ll find a summary of what is claimed for it (under the glorious heading of “Afghanistan Reborn”). It will inform you that USAID has completed literally thousands of projects in that country. The USAID loves numbers, but don’t be deceived by them. A thousand short-term USAID projects can’t hold a candle to one long, careful, patient program run, year after year, by a bunch of Afghans led by a single Swede.

If there has been any progress in Afghanistan, especially in and around Kabul, it’s largely been because two-thirds of the reconstruction aid to Afghanistan comes from other (mostly European) countries that do a better job, and partly because the country’s druglords spend big on palatial homes and services in the capital. But the one-third of international aid that is supposed to come from the U.S., and that might make a critical difference when added to the work of others, eternally falls into the wrong pockets.

… As things now stand, Afghans, as well as Afghan-Americans who go back to help their homeland, have to play by American rules. Recently an Afghan-American contractor who competed for reconstruction contracts told me that the American military is getting in on the aid scam. To apply for a contract, Afghan applicants now have to fill out a form (in English!) that may run to 50 pages. My informant, who asked to remain anonymous for obvious reasons, commented that it’s next to impossible to figure out “what they look for.” He won a contract only when he took a hint and hired an American “expert” — a retired military officer — to fill out the form. The expert claimed the “standard fee” for his service: 25% of the value of the contract.


… Don’t think of such stories, and thousands of others like them, as merely tales of the everyday theft or waste of a few hundred million dollars — a form of well-organized, routine graft that leaves the corruption of Karzai’s government in the shade and will undoubtedly continue unremarked upon in the Obama years. Those multi-millions that will continue to be poured down the Afghan drain really represent promises made to a people whose country and culture we have devastated more than once. They are promises made by our government, paid for by our taxpayers, and repeatedly broken.

These stories, which you’ll seldom hear about, are every bit as important as the debates about military strength and tactics and strategy in Afghanistan that dominate public discourse today. Those promises, made in our name, were once said to be why we fight; now — broken — they remind us that we’ve already lost.

About the author

Ann Jones wrote at length about the failure of American aid in Kabul in Winter (Metropolitan Books), a book about American meddling in Afghanistan as well as her experience as a humanitarian aid worker there from 2002 to 2006. For more information, visit her website. For a concise report on many of the defects in international aid mentioned here, check out Real Aid (pdf file), a report issued in 2005 by the South African NGO Action Aid.


If you are new to this site, please glance at the archives below. You may find answers to your questions in these.

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For more information from the FM site

To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp interest these days:

Some posts on the FM site about the war in Afghanistan:

  1. Why are we are fighting in Afghanistan?, 9 April 2008 — A debate with Joshua Foust.
  2. Stratfor says that our war in Pakistan grows hotter; Palin seems OK with that, 12 September 2008
  3. Pakistan warns America about their borders, and their sovereignty, 14 September 2008
  4. Weekend reading about … foreign affairs, 19 October 2008
  5. “Strategic Divergence: The War Against the Taliban and the War Against Al Qaeda” by George Friedman, 31 January 2009

13 thoughts on “America sends forth its privateers to pillage, bold corsairs stealing from you and I”

  1. With the economy being what it is and all, getting in on this profiteering seems like a pretty good idea. I deem myself to be an “expert.” Now how do I get a plush contract in Afghanistan?
    Fabius Maximus replies: Why work for a living? I am waiting for a few million $ as a bailout.

  2. Its government mismanagement like we have been witnessing in regards to the economy, foreign reserves, border control, the war on terror, the war of misadventure in Iraq – vast sums pushed down the plug hole etc etc, that unfortunately makes some citizens of democracy question its merit.

    Governments seem to have their priorities back to front. Worse, they seem to be incapable of putting themselves right. Western States have allowed themselves to become dangerously exposed.

  3. What a surprise… a kleptocratic US government led by the Bush-Cheney-Halliburton-Enron-Blackwater nexus goes into already corrupt places like Afghanistan and Iraq, and of all things, produces yet more corruption. Will wonders never cease? One suspects that the obituary of this age will be simple and devastating: “They robbed themselves until they had no future.”
    Fabius Maximus replies: What will you write in 4 years if these trends continue?

  4. FM, if these trends continue I don’t expect to be writing at all in four years — instead, I plan to focus on gathering firewood, finding fresh water, and hunting birds and small mammals. In my leisure time, though, to be fair to your question’s intent, some lines such as “the absurdity of hope” and “nightmares stolen from my father the thief” might come to mind along with the inevitable “no we couldn’t!” and I could paint them in animal fat on my cave wall;-).
    Fabius Maximus replies: I suspect that you greatly underestimate the resiliance of a modern industrial society. Look at how well Germany and Austrial came through the hyperinflation of 1922-24, or the world came though the 1914-1945 era. Two world wars, with a decade-long great depression in between for variety. Yet no collapse.

  5. Whoops FM, forgot my irony flag, and I should never post anything anywhere after reading my Monday morning Kunstler. That said, with tongue in cheek ratio firmly set at an ambivalent .5:

    “Look at how well Germany and Austria came through the hyperinflation of 1922-24”
    I’m thinking of a guy with a brush moustache and a bunch of ovens.

    “or the world came though the 1914-1945 era. Two world wars, with a decade-long great depression in between for variety. Yet no collapse.”

    They all had more oil than people; and this might just be the collapse;-). Human nervous system limitation, insensitivity to the slow and subtle and not directly and immediately life-threatening.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I don’t believe this makes much sense. IMO it reads like the doomster fears that have been circulated in every year for a century or more.

    (1) “I’m thinking of a guy with a brush moustache and a bunch of ovens.’

    German’s Parliament elected Hitler as prime minister in 1932, almost a decade after the Weimer hyperinflation. Germany was among the hardest hit by the first wave of the Great Depresion, and this probably was the primary cause of the NAZI’s rise to power.

    (2) “They all had more oil than people”

    This makes no sense at all, IMO. Most of the nation’s hit by the Great Depression had no oil. Nor is there any sign of an oil shortage today. As for today, the reduced comsumption gives us more time to prepare for peak oil (whenever it comes during the next few decades).

  6. Good post. In a sense this is nothing new, there have been books from the late 60s and early 70s decrying the direction of US foreign assistance and its glaring problems: heavily military based, short term and short sighted, and with a huge emphasis on procurement in the US. In that sense, the USAID and foreign assistance Ms. Jones is lamenting never existed, though Jesse Helms did quite a good job of weakening assistance programs even further.

    While Afghanistan in particular (and Iraq–hello police barracks leaking sewage!) is a lamentable case in particular, it is probably better to consider the nature of US foreign aid in general. In peace and war these have been the trends in aid since the Cold War. Haliburton and DynCorp have rightfully earned a lot of bad press for no bid contracts and big money projects that yield nothing, yet more touchy feely organizations like DAI and Chemonics regularly administer similar ‘development’ projects and take a cut of overhead costs. They are established organizations and have better reputations and results, but the paradigm for aid is largely the same–an emphasis on Western experts and companies and keeping money in the US.

    All of this means that many of our projects do little good at great expense–we undercut local markets with backdoor subsidies for mainly US companies. In a sense this is terrible but at the same time it creates jobs in the US, both in the ‘beltway bandit’ development industry as well as large agribusiness and whatever else have you–really it’s no different than the ‘buy America’ clause for steel. From the aid worker side, it’s clear that this is a disingenuous approach to reconstruction. In congress things get a lot murkier, especially when it’s unclear if the voting populace has a strong appetite for aid projects during an economic downturn. And given the nature of the average US citizen–a distrust for the government but a higher rate of charity giving than most of the developed world–it is not clear to me that our aid assistance is meant to play a bigger role than public diplomacy and prepping emerging markets for US goods.

    Do we as a country want something more out of our aid projects? And if so, what is the solution? A cabinet level aid organization, more local procurement and employment with longer term goals? And at the end of the day how do we insulate our projects from a domestic minded congress?

  7. FM, if these trends continue I don’t expect to be writing at all in four years — instead, I plan to focus on gathering firewood, finding fresh water, and hunting birds and small mammals. In my leisure time, though, to be fair to your question’s intent, some lines such as “the absurdity of hope” and “nightmares stolen from my father the thief” might come to mind along with the inevitable “no we couldn’t!” and I could paint them in animal fat on my cave wall;-).

    Greg, you might want to read Mircea Eliade’s writings about the “Terror of History”:

    Eternal return and “Terror of history”

    Main article: Eternal return (Eliade)

    Eliade argues that traditional man attributes no value to the linear march of historical events: only the events of the mythical age have value. To give his own life value, traditional man performs myths and rituals. Because the Sacred’s essence lies only in the mythical age, only in the Sacred’s first appearance, any later appearance is actually the first appearance; by recounting or reenacting mythical events, myths and rituals “reactualize” those events.[134]

    Thus, argues Eliade, religious behavior does not only commemorate, but also participates in, sacred events:

    “In imitating the exemplary acts of a god or of a mythical hero, or simply by recounting their adventures, the man of an archaic society detaches himself from profane time and magically re-enters the Great Time, the sacred time.”[135]

    Eliade called this concept the “eternal return” (distinguished from the philosophical concept of “eternal return”). Wendy Doniger noted that Eliade’s theory of the eternal return “has become a truism in the study of religions”.[136]

    Eliade attributes the well-known “cyclic” vision of time in ancient thought to belief in the eternal return. For instance, the New Year ceremonies among the Mesopotamians, the Egyptians, and other Near Eastern peoples reenacted their cosmogonic myths. Therefore, by the logic of the eternal return, each New Year ceremony was the beginning of the world for these peoples. According to Eliade, these peoples felt a need to return to the Beginning at regular intervals, turning time into a circle.[137]

    Eliade argues that yearning to remain in the mythical age causes a “terror of history”: traditional man desires to escape the linear succession of events (which, Eliade indicated, he viewed as empty of any inherent value or sacrality). Eliade suggests that the abandonment of mythical thought and the full acceptance of linear, historical time, with its “terror”, is one of the reasons for modern man’s anxieties.[138] Traditional societies escape this anxiety to an extent, as they refuse to completely acknowledge historical time.

    Eliede explicates this in The Myth of the Eternal Return: Cosmos and Histor

    Sacred time, according to Eliade, tracks cycles, such as solar cycles or lunar cycles. Given our need to develop renewable – primarily solar – energy supplies – it would behoove us to study cultural responses to these supplies to provide us with productive patterns of behavior.

  8. Can anyone answer me this puzzling Q , I saw in a (UK) redtop. Why do we hear no detail of what our troops are doing in Afgh? In Falklands war, the UK public watched the soldiers tramp every road, climb every hill; knew their objective was ‘Port Stanley’ , saw maps how far, how near PS was, etc. ( Yes, I know campaign was small , fast and the residents were on our side …) All we hear about Afgh is “Routine Patrols in Helmand” , sadly often associated with deaths of our best young people. As the redtop journalist pointed out, where are the pictures of even the Hydroelectric project our troops helped with? Why the fog – dont the bosses know what they are doing or where they are, either?
    Fabius Maximus replies: If I were a soldier in Afghanistan, I would not want my activities broadcast to the enemy for the entertainment of folks back home. IMO the coverage is probably par for wartime journalism in a difficult and somewhat hostile land.

    1. The military objective of the Brits in the Falklands was clear cut: Seize the port, it’s offshore oil fields, hit the nationalists hard. In Afghanistan, it’s all about “fighting terror”, and the tangible benefits to occupation (consolidation of the local “agricultural industry” on our local friends’- Karzai’s family- and dealing out mining rights to global interests) our leaders Do Not discuss.

      1. G Pritchard,

        “seize it’s offshore oil fields”

        I doubt that was the plan, because there are no known offshore oil fields (just indications of oil, like there are in many many places). It’s been 30 years. Oil prices have skyrocketed, many oil fields have been brought into production around the world — but none in the Falklands.

        Perhaps because nobody has discovered exploitable oil. So far just dry holes: “Falkland Oil & Gas shares plunge as well proves empty“. BBC News, 12 July 2010.

  9. Duncan, interesting post and thanks for sharing that… you seemed to have sensed a sort of implicit romanticism on my part in the direction of feeling that the current problems could be the best possible thing, in that the kleptocracy and corruption collapsing could render what are now ‘consumers’ into citizens again, doing useful and productive work, based in many ways on the Pythagorean concept of ‘harmonia’ which it says here is closely connected to the notions of great time and the divine cycles of descent and ascent, that everything returns to its origin, and that knowledge is a much deeper matter than mere fact. People lived reasonably well, had great achievements, in century after century devoid of investment bankers, telepundits, full time political ‘strategists’ and the like. It will be a better day when they all need to find real jobs; but it’s unfortunate what many people will have to go through to get us there. Yet this too will pass;-).

  10. Re Wartime journalism:
    I can’t see that mainstream publication of a detailed report , of what was done in the previous 3 months , would endanger any military campaign or aid project . Especially when this deadly circus has dragged on for 7 years , and has no end in sight ; or even an end defined .
    Without having to produce a mainstream ,detailed public account of profit and loss ( money , territory , people ) , what is there to concentrate the bosses’ minds ?
    Fabius Maximus replies: Good point (your reference to the real-time coverage of the Falklands’ War confused me). Do many Americans want to read details about our operations in Afghanistan?

  11. I dont know how interested most Americans are in Afgh ? Or what their ‘ take ‘ is now – finding Osama still ?
    Our UK media give us the Peace, Stability and Good Works angle ( with pictures of soldiers ; without pictures of successes ).
    I guess if 9/11 had happened in Uk , we wouldnt have been seeking revenge ( or commercial interests )abroad . We’d have been stringing up the Architect , Buildings Inspector and Fire Safety Officer . Terrorism , like fire ,flood , pestilence , earthquake , and other stuff ,happens ; but properly built skyscrapers shouldnt implode as neatly as a demolition job . Blame the government !
    Seems 7/7 is remembered here as when Armed Police Shot Dead an Innocent Brazilian and Lied to Cover It Up . Blame the government !( Actually , 50 people died in bombings in the Tube . )

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